Baseball’s connection to the War Between the States has long been recognized. Soldiers played ball as a way to occupy free time, of which there was a great deal in between the occasional battle or skirmish or for those in prison camps, and officers saw it as a way to keep men active during down time.
However, baseball relics from 150 years ago are exceedingly rare, partly because the generally scarcity of luxury items such as sporting goods during the war, partly because of the transiency that is the nature of army life and partly because of time itself.
Which makes the above item all the more fascinating: Slate magazine published the image earlier this week of a ball found and retrieved in 1862 in Shiloh, Tenn., amid the detritus of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. The battle of Shiloh took place on April 6-7, 1862, and resulted in nearly 24,000 dead, wounded and missing.
The ball is inscribed: “Picked Up on the Battle Field at Shiloh by G.F. Hellum.” Hellum was an orderly for the Union Army at Shiloh. He later enlisted as a soldier in Co. B of the 69th Colored Infantry.
(The National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors System, which details many of the men who fought in the war, spells Hellum’s last name as “Hellem.”)
The artifact is what is known as a “lemon peel ball,” looser and softer than today’s baseballs, and is hand-stitched in a figure-eight pattern with thick twine, according to Slate’s Frank Ceresi.
Along with other artifacts, this rare ball will be unveiled on Opening Day this year at the new online baseball museum and archive www.thenationalpastime.com, Slate adds.
While baseball’s popularity soared as a result of the war, it’s apparent that the game was already fashionable to a degree at the conflict’s outset.
“In 1861 at the start of the war, an amateur team made up of members of the 71st New York (Infantry) Regiment defeated the Washington Nationals baseball club by a score of 41 to 13,” according the Baseball Almanac website. “When the 71st New York later returned to the man the defenses of Washington in 1862, the teams played a rematch, which the Nationals won 28 to 13. Unfortunately, the victory came in part because some of the 71st’s best athletes had been killed at Bull Run only weeks after their first game.”
One of the best-attended sporting events of the entire 19th century was a baseball game played on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina on Christmas Day 1862, the Almanac adds.
Members of the 165th New York Volunteer Regiment played a game against team composed of men selected from other Yankee regiments as more than 40,000 troops looked on. Future National League President Abraham G. Mills, then a member of the 5th New York Infantry regiment, was among the game’s participants, according to the Baseball Almanac.
With the war’s end, surviving troops returned to their hometowns and shared the game, helping spread baseball’s popularity.
By 1869 the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, had been formed. The Cincinnati Reds aren’t a direct link to the Red Stockings, but they are the oldest major league club to have played continuously in one city, since 1881.